How Russia Legalised Deportations From Occupied Ukrainian Lands

June 14, 2023
New Russian legislation codifying forced deportations of Ukrainians to Russia under the guise of evacuation.

On May 29, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees concerning the imposition of martial law. Before, the Russian State Duma had voted on amendments to current Russian legislation.

These amendments are worth analyzing with respect to how they affect  Ukrainian territories under Russian occupation, namely parts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya Oblasts. In particular, on October 19, 2022, a presidential decree imposed martial law on these territories, with the further comment that "martial law had been imposed on these territories previously, and there was a need to adapt it according to the Russian legislation".

The  new amendments made certain changes that can be interpreted as another element of Russia's strategy to codify  its occupation and further its war crimes in these territories. They include:

  • a ban on people assembling in public places at certain  times;
  • expanding the authority of security forces to carry out inspections of documents, people, and their belongings, homes, and vehicles;
  • legal authorization to impose forced and controlled relocation of people;
  • as well as the legal procedures to conduct elections and referenda in territories under martial law.

The expansion of the powers of security forces and restrictions on rights to civil assembly can be interpreted as measures to fight the Ukrainian resistance movement and strengthen repressions against pro-Ukrainians in the occupied territories, who are considered "a threat to national security" by the Russian government and its puppet authorities.

The same strategy can be seen in the amendment concerning the conduct of elections and referendums -- Russia aimed to legitimize their occupation of Ukrainian territories, and provide an official basis for the fabricated referenda they carried out in these regions in September.

It is worth taking a deeper look at the amendment concerning the "forced and controlled relocation of people from territories under martial," as this can be interpreted as a direct legalization of deportations of Ukrainians to Russia under the guise of "evacuation."

"Russia is trying to legalize things that they had begun to do long before. However, in the case of Crimea, they had been relocating people from the Russian Federation to this territory between 2014 and 2022, and tried to force people [with pro-Ukrainian position] leave with political persecutions.

The same was the case with Donbas: they couldn't relocate there anybody, but they simplified the process of relocation to the Russian Federation and even gaining Russian citizenship. When they announce martial law, they will most likely do so in the occupied Ukrainian territories that they consider Russian.

That means the deportation of people. It is a violation of international humanitarian law," explained Oleksandra Romantsova, the executive director of the Center for Civil Liberties.

Russian propaganda argues that Russia is "saving" people and providing them with all the help they need to relocate and gain legal status in Russia. In addition to this, Russia adopted simplified procedure for Ukrainians to gain Russian citizenship. In 2019, this procedure pertained to people from Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, but in 2022, it was extended to people from Zaporizhia and Kherson Oblasts.

However, this has just been a strategy aimed at the deportation of large groups of people from Ukraine to Russia, especially from territories that have been practically destroyed by the Russian military, and then integrating these people into Russian society by erasing any signs of their Ukrainian identity. People who are transferred to Russia often live in poor conditions in former schools, Soviet resorts, and summer camps. Then are sometimes even relocated to remote regions of Russia.

Source: Hromadske

"They began deportations of large population groups at the beginning of the full-scale invasion. Since 2014, there have been many people from Ukraine in Russia who were either relocated there or displaced there forcibly. They are living in different Russian regions in poor conditions without any status or Russian citizenship.

The situation in 2022 is similar. Therefore, deportations, along with the simplification of granting Russian citizenship, are aimed at decreasing the number of Ukrainian citizens and can be interpreted as another element of genocide," Romantsova added.

The forced deportation of civilians to Russia from occupied Ukraine includes a number of demographics, including children (especially orphans), women with children, the elderly, and people in state care. When it comes to children, Russia is conducting systematic deportations with the aim of re-educating these children and transforming them into "Russians" after going through either special programs or simplified procedures for adoption into Russian families.

Source: Conflict Observatory

Deportations also target people who have been detained in occupied territories, with cases in which such people are relocated either to Russia or to territories that have been under the occupation since 2014.

"Firstly, if a person is arrested, there is a risk of remaining imprisoned without charge or access to a lawyer or their relatives. The latest number of Ukrainian civilians in this sort of detention is approximately 3000.

Secondly, if we speak about children, their parents can't take them home. Small children may have their birth dates, names, surnames, and patronymics changed, so it is practically impossible to find them. When it comes to children, Russia is violating the entire Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Thirdly, if we talk about people who were "evacuated" from occupied territories or have gone through filtration procedures, there is a danger of being forced to take Russian citizenship if they don't have sufficient documents either to leave Russia or to live there legally. These people are then passed on to regional authorities that don't have any programs or budgets to help them, and people remain in a suspended state," Romantsova explained.

There have also been cases where people decide to accept transportation to Russia in order to travel somewhere else via Russian territory, such as the EU, Central Asia, or the Caucasus. In many cases, this is the only possible way to leave occupied territory, as the Russian troops limit the movement of people through green corridors to Ukraine and people have to go through the "gray zone" risking being struck by missiles or artillery.

However, leaving occupied territory and Russia this way is a very long and difficult process. People sometimes have to wait  weeks in awful conditions as they go through "filtration".

"The first bus went  from Mariupol to Bezimenne - a territory that had been occupied a long time ago. There were Russian volunteers from Moscow. It was just a queue for another "filtration point." We were told there that we could wait and wander through the village even further if we wanted, but we would be stopped at the first checkpoint and turned back.

The space didn't have liveable conditions. It was just a school building without a toilet on the street... People were divided into groups and sent to another filtration point. Sometimes they could spend more than a week. The next point was Starobeshevo. The filtration point was simply at the police station," recounted Maksym Kasyanchuk, a resident of Mariupol.

During filtration, Ukrainians are forced to turn over their phones to members of the Russian security forces. They are also required to answer a questionnaire concerning attitudes towards the Ukrainian government, the Revolution of Dignity, Russia, and the war.

Supporters of Ukraine, journalists, activists, former government and security force employees, and former soldiers are all at great risk.

Therefore, people have to delete everything "suspicious" from their phones beforehand, like photos with Ukrainian symbols, posts on social media, and messages to friends. After going through this procedure, people receive a document stating that they have cleared filtration.

They then have 3 options: remain in the occupied Ukrainian territory or return home, try to go abroad through the Russian territory, or relocate within Russia. However, in some cases they don't actually have any choice, as they are often told that it is impossible to leave Russia because of limitations imposed by Western countries. Moreover, all options other than moving to Russia can only be undertaken at the person's own expense, which is practically impossible for poor or vulnerable individuals.

"They offered us 3 options: to stay in the territory of the so-called "DPR," or even return back to Mariupol at our own expense. Then there was  a free bus to Russia. From Russian territory, there were two options - remain there as a refugee or displaced person, or try to go abroad at your own expense. However, they tried to frighten us by saying that we would not be allowed into other countries from Russia because of "cruel Westerners who don't welcome refugees," Kasyanchuk explained.

The final challenge is the border. There people have to deal with large queues, the lack of any amenities, and further filtration by Russian security service personnel. Thus, "evacuation" ends up turning into deportation for many people.

"At the border checkpoint, there was one more filtration. It was rather hard to get there because of terrible queues - there is an open field and a huge crowd waiting for their documents to be checked. It was simply impossible to get  through it in one day," Kasyanchuk recounted.

To sum up, Russia is consistently implementing a strategy to deport Ukrainians to Russia and assimilate them as Russians. The new amendments to Russian legislation on martial law simply codify the practice of deporting civilians and prisoners of war which Russia has been conducting since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Analyst and Journalist at UkraineWorld